The Importance of Talking About Food

Everyday at my restaurant minibar in Washington, D.C., a chef, sometimes two, stands at a counter and goes through 20 or so boxes of micro greens and herbs.

Stem by stem, ever so carefully, they pluck these tiny, delicate leaves using tweezers and measure them into portions for that night’s service. It’s tedious work—an exercise for the brain as well as the eyes, but these precious greens are so beautiful that it’s never a bore.

When a new dish is being developed, oftentimes greens like these are the only thing that’s missing to make it perfect. That last touch—a vibrant green basil leaf resting on top of a watermelon air; beautiful flower petals placed around the edges of a sauce.

 

Watch José’s keynote address at the Roots Conference 2014.

 

They can be what transform a combination of flavors into a work of art, because products like these are really someone else’s art, too. Now, every time I hold one of these gorgeous products in my hand, I am taken back to a special place where many of these greens are grown, in Huron, Ohio at Farmer Lee Jones’ Chef’s Garden. This farm grows organic, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables under the mission of connecting with the people who will be using their foods—mainly the chefs who cook and truly care about the ingredients. Through his work, Farmer Lee Jones establishes a personal relationship with nearly every one of his clients and he produces crops based on their needs.
 


  
When I visited Farmer Lee Jones this past month, I had the opportunity to taste all of the incredible products. Purple and orange cauliflower, five different varieties of carrots, zebra-striped tomatoes—I could go on and on! It was astonishing how fresh and unique everything tasted, and to think that it was all grown naturally. With only a team of 100 people, Farmer Lee Jones is a revolutionary. He is growing things that could only be done before with the use of chemicals or pesticides—a living example of why green farming can work, even for the small batch, artisanal crops. He’s revolutionizing the world of food more than how it appears on the surface, too. My reason for going to Ohio was to attend his second annual Roots Conference, which began as a natural development from the relationships Farmer Lee Jones was creating with chefs. Building off of our industry’s tight-knit community, he started it in hopes that if people in his and my line of work, such as farmers, chefs and producers, to name a few, were all brought together to share ideas and inspire each other, we might be able to create a global conversation about food. Most importantly, the topics discussed would give us actionable items to bring back to each of respective professions so we can start making a change.

 


 

I’m asked to attend panels or forums a lot, and a lot of the times they’re invitations to major dining destinations, pulling me to various coasts and bustling cities. The Roots Conference was a breath of fresh air—taking place in the middle of America, where a lot of the issues that we were there to discuss are actually occurring. I was so impressed with how many people the Roots Conference brought together, people from all parts of our trade who gathered for two days to discuss things like food waste and obesity, vegetable alternatives for proteins and what we could do with ancient traditions using modern technology.

It was so inspiring to be in such a beautiful place and hear from all of these people who came from different sides of the food community. There were people representing large communities, like Leigh Adcock, the former executive director of the non-profit Women, Food and Agriculture, and Chef Nephi Craig, founder of Native American Culinary Association, an organization dedicated to the development of Native American cuisine. There were also people from major food brands who represent the ethical sides of their business, like Matthew Dillon, the senior manager of agriculture policy and programs at Clif Bar & Company, who serves as the middleman between state and federal officials on organic policy issues. Each and every one of these people was so interesting to listen to, and they all contributed different perspectives that had something we could learn from. You can listen to them, too, with live recordings available here.
 


 

The sentiments of the Roots Conference are the answer to making great change throughout all levels of our food systems. Just like gathering around the table to share a meal, food should bring us together to work on the important matters, as well. If we collectively share our ideas for making the food on our plates better, the future of what we eat will look a lot brighter.